Somerville Board of Aldermen
93 Highland Avenue
Somerville, MA 02143
We have reviewed the revised zoning proposal (dated November 3, 2016) for a Union Square Overlay District, and we wish to offer suggestions for improving the zoning amendment. The revised zoning amendment makes several important modifications, which reflect real progress in advancing new zoning in Union Square that will serve as a catalyst for the development and growth we all seek. However, the revised amendment also fails to address most of our most pressing concerns, and we urge the Board of Aldermen to give these concerns continued consideration before adopting new zoning for Union Square.
We summarize our comments below, and we have included a detailed analysis of our suggested revisions as an attachment.
Land Area Requirements: The revised amendment increases minimum land area to apply for a Coordinated Development Special Permit from 200,000 square feet to 675,000 square feet, which is effectively all of the Union Square Revitalization Plan development parcels (“D blocks”) combined. The implication is that US2 (and the Somerville Redevelopment Authority (SRA) as co-applicant) would be the only eligible applicant for a single Coordinated Development Special Permit, and it would cover all of the D blocks.
Enforceability: Like the previous version of the amendment, the new draft does not contain any enforcement mechanisms to require or incentivize a developer, in this case, US2, to complete all of the project phases included under a Coordinated Development Special Permit. We raised concerns about the lack of enforcement mechanisms in our previous comments and they remain unaddressed. Our concern is that the most profitable uses could be built first, and civic space, arts and creative space, commercial development, and affordable housing could be planned in a later phase but never delivered. With the threshold for a Coordinated Development Special Permit increased by over three-times in size, issues of enforcement become even more important. (See Attachment A for our analysis and suggested remedies, including linkage between uses via occupancy permitting, requiring a surety bond, deed restrictions, etc.). Moreover, the proposal would allow US2 to propose development on Union Square Revitalization Plan parcels that it does not own if the Somerville Redevelopment Authority is listed as co-applicant.
Density: Similar to the previous draft, the zoning amendment would enable construction of “Podium Tower Building” up to 20 stories on the D1.2 lot (currently the Public Safety Building). This is in conflict with the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. See Attachment A for our suggested remedies.
Civic/Open Space: The revised version of the zoning amendment sets a minimum 15 percent set-aside for new civic space as it relates to all of the land area within a Coordinated Development rather than on a lot-specific basis. We strongly urge increasing this figure from 15 percent to 20 percent in order to meet the goals of SomerVision. (See Attachment A for our analysis.) The revised amendment also removes a requirement to create new civic space or make payments in-lieu for USOD parcels not included in a Coordinated Development Plan; this merits correction. Moreover, civic space created on publicly owned land (including land subject to SRA eminent domain) should be returned to public ownership or oversight.
Offsite Compliance for Affordable Housing: As written, the zoning amendment would allow that all affordable housing units mandated by Somerville’s 20 percent inclusionary zoning requirement could be built offsite and concentrated on one or more “Receiving Sites.” Our concern is that this has the potential to result in excessive concentration and marginalization of low- and moderate-income residents. Moreover, there does not appear to be an assurance that quality of the buildings and amenities for individuals living in affordable units will be equal in value to market-rate housing. Lastly, if affordable units are to be concentrated in one or more locations, we believe there should be some assurance that a significant percentage of the affordable units will be large enough for families (i.e. 2 and 3 bedroom units). See Attachment A for our suggested remedies.
Neighborhood Meeting prior to Approval of Coordinated Development Special Permit: The revised zoning amendment includes a Preliminary Review phase that includes a requirement for a Neighborhood Meeting before the applicant/developer may submit a Coordinated Development Special Permit application. (See 6.7.5.C.3.b, p. 12-13 of the revised zoning amendment.) We support this change.
Administrative Review: Criteria and Public Input: Under the zoning amendment, the Planning Board has discretionary review for Coordinated Development Special Permits but only Administrative Review powers for Design and Site Plan approval. In the previous draft, it was not sufficiently clear what review criteria may be considered as part of an Administrative Review process, and our concern was that community concerns would not be sufficiently addressed. The revised zoning amendment requires additional Neighborhood Meetings as part of the Design and Site Plan Review process. It also includes review criteria that describe the Planning Board’s decision-making authority under the Administrative Review process. (See 6.7.5.D.5, p. 17 of the revised zoning amendment.) We support these changes.
Thank you again for the opportunity to provide written feedback on the proposed Union Square Overlay District zoning amendment. If we can be helpful to the Board of Aldermen in any way, please feel free to reach out to us. We would be happy to expand upon our comments and/or provide suggested language for motions for the Board’s consideration.
Rob Buchanan, Chairperson
Union Square Neighbors
Union Square Neighbors Steering Committee:
Rob Buchanan (chair), Suzanne Bremer, Stuart Dash, Sam Engelstad, Andy Greenspon, Stephanie Hirsch, Jim McGinnis, Annette McGloin, Philip Parsons, JT Scott, Tim Talun, Shu Talun, Bonnie Tominack
Joseph A. Curtatone, Mayor, City of Somerville
Somerville Board of Alderman